Iraq in political turmoil only days after US withdrawal

Published Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Updated 3:49pm: Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president denied terror charges against him and vowed to defend himself in a defiant news conference on Tuesday as rival leaders called for urgent talks to resolve a worsening crisis.

"I swear to God that I never committed a sin when it comes to Iraqi blood," Hashemi told a news conference in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil.

"I suggest transferring the case to Kurdistan. On this basis, I will be ready to face trial."

He called for representatives of the Arab League to take part in the investigation and any questioning, and said apparent confessions aired on state television linking him to attacks were "false" and "politicized".

Hashemi also questioned upbeat statements about the state of Iraq from Barack Obama, telling reporters: "I am surprised by the statements of the US president, when he said that Iraq had become democratic and had an independent judicial system."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders have called for talks to head off a worsening crisis since a warrant was issued for the Sunni vice president, an aide said.

"Maliki is calling for a conference of heads of political blocs and political leaders to discuss their differences, and to sort out the current security and political crisis," Ali Mussawi, media adviser to the premier, said on Tuesday.

Days after US forces left the country and on the eve of the first anniversary of the government, Iraq's political truce looked to be unraveling.

The Iraqiya List, the main Sunni-backed parliamentary bloc, is boycotting the cabinet, while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has called for the sacking of one of his deputies, a Sunni who branded the Shia-led government a "dictatorship."

The White House voiced concern over the developments, and multiple Iraqi leaders called for a national conference of the country's political blocs to break the deadlock.

"I call for a national conference, at a time when the political process is subject to strong and dangerous shocks with undesired consequences," parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi said in a statement.

Nujaifi, who along with Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak is a Sunni and a member of the Iraqiya bloc, warned that Iraq faced "crucial days."

His call for talks echoed that of Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, who cautioned on Monday that "the situation is headed towards deep crisis."

"The ruling partnership has become threatened," said Barzani, who in November 2010 hosted a meeting of Iraq's leaders at which the foundations of the national unity government were laid, ending months of impasse following elections in March that year, with a cabinet eventually named on December 21.

On Monday, a five-member judicial panel issued a warrant against Hashemi on anti-terror charges, an interior ministry spokesman said. The vice president has also been banned from overseas travel.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the United States, whose troops completed their withdrawal from Iraq over the weekend, "have expressed our concern regarding these developments."

"We're urging all sides to work to resolve differences peacefully through dialogue, in a manner consistent with the rule of law and the democratic political process," he said.

News of the warrant came with Hashemi in Kurdistan and as state broadcaster Al-Iraqiya TV aired footage showing what the interior ministry said were Hashemi's bodyguards confessing to planning and carrying out terror attacks, and receiving funding and support from Hashemi.

At least 13 of Hashemi's bodyguards have been detained in recent weeks, though it was unclear how many were still being held.

Hashemi's office said only three were arrested, and has complained of "intentional harassment" in the form of a security force blockading his home for several weeks, as well as other incidents.

Iraqiya, meanwhile, said it would boycott cabinet meetings to protest Maliki's "dictatorship," after earlier saying it was suspending its participation in parliament.

"This decision is based on the deterioration of the political process, and to ensure that the country will not head towards a catastrophe if Maliki's dictatorship continues," Mutlak, who Maliki said over the weekend should be sacked, told AFP.

Lawmakers are due to consider Maliki's request to fire Mutlak on January 3.

Iraqiya, which holds 82 seats in the 325-member parliament and controls nine ministerial posts, has not pulled out of the national unity government.

Iraqiya, which garnered most of its support from the Sunni Arab minority and emerged with the most seats in March 2010 elections, was out-maneuvered for the premiership by Maliki who finished second in the polls.

(AFP)

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